How China Picks Its Leaders: A Chart

Explaining the People's Republic's five tiers of power

RTR3A44F-615.pngParty spokesperson Cai Mingzhao arrives for a press briefing ahead of the 18th party congress. (China Daily/Reuters)

Today marks the kickoff of China's 18th party congress, the once-per-decade political confab that has the country's biggest wigs formally appointing their next leaders in Beijing. The two men who will assume the most powerful posts in all the land will be Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Together, they'll represent 1.3 billion people, nearly a fifth of the world's population.

China may not be a democracy in the Western sense, but like any selection process, the circle of people who actually get a say in naming Xi and Li to the presidency and premiership is remarkably small. How small, you ask?

Here below is a stripped-down graphical representation of China's complex leadership structure.

china-leadership-chart-3.jpg

Here's how it works: the National People's Congress brings together some 2,000 delegates. Those representatives are responsible for choosing between 200 and 300 members of what's called the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Out of those, 24 ascend to the ultra-powerful Politburo, which in the past has been responsible for many of China's major decisions. But it doesn't end there. Above the politburo sits the country's highest decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). It's effectively a seven-member inner cabinet staffed by China's most powerful individuals, who themselves are drawn from the 24-member politburo.

Just as with a Western cabinet, each of the PSC's members oversees a different policy domain. Xi Jinping, who's already a sitting member on the PSC, serves as vice chairman of the Communist Party's central military commission. Every member also represents a home district. In Xi's case, it's Shanghai.

Even though they're running the country, the president and premier are formally members of the PSC, and many of the decisions it makes have to be approved consensually. That means there's likely a lot of backchannel politicking ordinary Chinese don't get to see, much less Western observers. Hu Jintao, the current president, has floated the idea of making reforms to this hierarchical process. Until they actually happen, though, illustrations like these can help us understand what's going on.

Presented by

Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we still save the night sky?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we still save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Desegregated, Yet Unequal

A short documentary about the legacy of Boston busing

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

Social Media: The Video Game

What if the validation of your peers could "level up" your life?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Global

Just In